An unsettling excavation of violence and redemption
Norte, the end of history — Lav Diaz (2013)
Tested positive for Covid this week, days after I’d actually felt unwell. While the sun shines on London (goodbye ominous dust cloud), it seemed like a good idea to put the finishing touches to this amble through one of Lav Diaz’s more ‘accessible’—and yet no less ambiguous—works of film. Hope you enjoy.
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‘An intelligent man cannot become anything seriously, and it is only the fool who becomes anything’
Fyodor Dostoevsky, Notes from Underground
— There is so much history. It is aggregate(d), like a charnel house wall. Paint over it, blow the wall up. The dust flies everywhere, straight into your eye. Escaping from history requires a particular velocity, and it is not death. Nobody has quite figured out what its trajectory is. Maybe there is no trajectory. It might be redemption.
— But what does redemption look like in a world polluted by the anodyne machineries of global capital?
— Norte, the end of history is a 2013 film by Filipino filmmaker Lav Diaz, he of the durationally spread-eagled cinema; of slowness taken to its coagulated extreme. Norte is a place shorn of its predicate (it is a region in northern Thailand that also happens to be the early stomping ground of dictator Marcos). It is the edge of nowhere, exactly. It is the centre of everything.
— The end of history—obviously—belongs to Fukuyama’s end of history, which – from the perspective of this year, of any year—is a mangled irony, a sealed box that has spilled everywhere from a secret hole. The end of history is confounded with the end of a place, a localization of durational structures. Why Norte? Why anywhere! People, everywhere, are continually confronting the tendrils of history. Not just your monuments (Olaf Nicolai’s twenty-four hour head of Marx), but your disposable paper cups and where they end up. A scrap of cloud. Radio, bending – distorted – through the windows of an apartment. Disposable forks.
— Another figure makes a veiled appearance here, and that figure is Dostoevsky - and, by association, Raskalnikov, the protagonist of Crime and Punishment. You know it already, where juridical and moral logic comes to blows with the salvatory possibility of godliness. Diaz’s Raskalnikov is Fabian, loud of voice. He hurtles, inwardly vibrates, pursuing a line of righteous logic through its tragic conclusion. Dissatisfied with lazily liberal indifference to or acceptance of these facts, he has the gusto of the holy fool - furious at the vile inequalities that wrack not only the world, but his corner of it. His fury is the fury of indignation. The friends with whom he spars (in medium shot bar scenes and picnics and car rides) treat it as a game. They are, after all, training to be lawyers. Fabian takes it to heart.
— And his heart is perforated, torn open. He is in conflict not only with his society and class, but with the structure of the film itself. In one telling scene, he speaks to his admiration of Japanese minimalism, the haiku: “five, seven, five - perfect!”. The film is anything but. It is larger than can be contained, at once explosively immediate and patiently unfocused. In this world, perfection is suspect. Everything is tainted.
— Entangled within global flows of ideas and capital. Enmeshed. Norte might be the location at the end of a vast shute where all of history tumbles and falls out. Not just Dostoevsky (Russia), but the English language, the American style diner where Fabian goes to ground, the dull, indifferent machinery of global capital that extracts (people, wealth) and ejects (ideas, consumables, people) back. The ‘end’, therefore, may not refer to a temporal but rather a spatial end. A point of final deposition. History returns rather than departs. History is Norte. Norte is history, its end; its beginning.
— Diaz is a surgeon. He splits Raskalnikov in two. Fabian and Joaquin. Where the former is boastful, articulate, and enraged, Joaquin is quietude and goodness itself. Wearing his abjection literally (a leg injury sustained from an unspecified event), he has none of the louche comfort of bourgeois Fabian. While both are in debt to a local moneylender, Fabian is never - truly - at her mercy. He always, eventually, pays her back. Joaquin’s family, whom he can no longer support, suffer through the iniquities of a very actual poverty. Their dreams of starting a roadside eatery are abandoned, the cutlery and plates sold off. Diaz never leans toward a cinema of exploitation, but it can be scented. The moneylender - an obese and snarling woman - visits their home and clucks disdainfully about their fiscal (and, by association, moral) ineptitude. She eats biscuits at their table, disgustedly batting away a fly. Fabian, also her debtor, is never treated with such blatant disdain.
— Fabula, quickly. Joaquin confronts the moneylender, attempts to strangle her, and escapes. Fabian watches Eliza, Joaquin’s wife, desperately attempt to pawn junk at her door. Money where his mouth is, he returns—later that night, or the next—and murders not only the moneylender, but her daugther. The second killing isn’t immediately apparent, only later disclosed. Diaz with his patient camera. It never lunges or draws close. Death happens rooms away. We glimpse a quick coupling of bodies, the sound of a knife, blood on his shirt. The crux of Dostoevsky’s novel is Raskalnikov’s coming-to-terms with an act he himself conceived and executed. It is concerned with rightness, with moral redemption. Diaz demurs. Joaquin is blamed for the moneylender’s death, while Fabian - never suspect - walks free.
— Certain scenes bear blatant witness to the themes of the film in which they sit. Fabian, self-exiled to Manila (remember: murderer), his garret – a most Franco-Russian of inventions – caged with fragile bars. This is a prison of his own making. It is still a prison. Diaz doesn’t shy from these quite literal metaphors. Why should he? The revolution will not be glorified. It will be debased. Anything that smacks of the transcendent must necessarily be disruptive, inexplicable. A field across a river, shrouded in flame. No explanation. Miss me with that.
— Visually, this is not entirely the same Diaz as Death in the Land of Encantos (2007) or Melancholia (2018). Assisted by cinematographer Lauro Rene Manda, his camera – usually so staid, unblinking – is allowed a little more mobility. It is shot in colour, in vibrant high definition - the darkness engulfing, the lick of fire and water bright and vibrating. On rails, the camera tracks and shifts, supplying a patient element of momentum to his durational takes. It feels both very similar and very distinct from Century of Birthing (2011), my first Diaz film. We also experience wild, cavorting POV shots (Fabian’s eye as it darts nervously from his apartment window) and what must be drone footage that hurtles - erratically - above fields and rooftops. It is obscurant as much as it is revelatory, rarely allowing the whole breadth of the scene to be gulped down. We are reminded of Fabian’s murders, half-glimpsed, shrouded in darkness (the second occurring entirely in the implied beyond-the-frame). The hovering drone that jolts and climbs beyond the windows of Joaquin’s family home while he languishes in prison. Formally, this vast ‘epic’ spends much of its energies hiding the wider picture from us, forsaking close-ups and details for spaces and blindspots. This, too, is history - an invisible structure only parts of which can be observed. Great epochs happen in private rooms.
— Two interleaving historical processes - the arbitrary and the conditioned. Fabian believes that nihilistic self-sabotage—violently projected onto the people around him—is the only viable route for his malignant auto-de-fe of the soul. Joaquin relies, instead, on acts of saintly goodness, but never once finds solace in the teachings of the church. It is Fabian who falls in with a group of what he calls Born Again Christians in Manila, where he goes to ground. Encircled by a bevy of sincere believers on plastic chairs, he beats his breast and rails against his sinfulness: “Who can forgive me?”. Diaz sets up a potential trajectory by which Fabian will find salvation and God. He does not, choosing instead to crash angrily away. This precedes his return to the family farm. He has ripped through the moral codes of jurisprudence, philosophy, belief. By the film’s end, he is largely mute. Exhausted almost entirely of (his) language, we drift away from the confused path of his thinking. Only paroxysms of tearful anger remain. When we see him last, he convinces a fisherman - Charon-like - to ferry him silently along a startlingly reflective river. Two skies, each of which echo the other. This is a vision of the sublime, but it’s also a vision of tangled complicity. Both Joaquin and Fabian are the same, existing - living - beneath an identical historical structure. Before God, all are equal. Before history, all are the same. Neither’s story is resolved. History—after all—has met its end.
— Fabian auto-ostracises himself from society. It is the boon of privilege. Like the protagonist of Dostoevsky’s furious Notes from Underground, the subject of his rage is both real and pathetic. We empathise with his disdain for capital’s cruelty; we baulk at his solutions and methodologies. Unlike Dostoevsky’s Raskalnikov, however, there is no obvious trajectory for his moral redemption. By the third hour, his and Joaquin’s path become increasingly bifurcated, alienated by the conditions of their ambivalent redemptions. His descent is terrible and incoherent, and all rests upon a prodigal return to the family estate - a tobacco farm - in the Filipino countryside. More than Chekovian ennui, he finds here yet further grist for his war against society. His sister, a shallow yet religiously devout farmer, is both pitiful and tragically alone.
— But it would be too reductive to suggest that Fabian embodies a particular tendency in the trajectory of 21st century Filipino society. His admiration for dictator Marcos, his Napoleonic delusions. These are ideas he dons and discards with an indifference to their context and provenance. His logic is a miasma, not a piercing light, and the minimalism he craves is really not his, but Joaquin’s. Festooned with concepts, he is like the home of the moneylender - stuffed with the pawned junk of society’s downtrodden. Like her, he accumulates. When he kills her, he is killing himself. But there is no rebirth. His violence is sporadic and explosive. He drags his sister into her room and violently rapes her. Again, the violence happens just out of frame. It is there, but it is not there. He maims everything that is close to him, of his blood and his body.
— We’ve not even spoken of Joaquin’s imprisonment, where the camera draws, atypically, toward the bodies and faces of Diaz’s subjects. It is an intimation of suffocating. More immediately corporeal than the surrounding flesh of the film. These sections are the most blatantly breezy. Joaquin is the model prisoner. He accepts his fate, acts only with kindliness. He even nurses the monstrous lifer who subjects other inmates to his fits of outrageous violence. He is wounded yet again, in the hand or arm. A knife. This is Christ-like indeed, the stabbed body that only turns the other cheek.
— By its final act, Norte baffles with its avalanche of red-herrings and ambivalences. We believe that Joaquin has been pardoned, exonerated (across a yard, he approaches Eliza). Really, he is still in prison. In the very next scene, we pan from a busy highway to a dry riverbed in flames. Eliza’s bus—she’s returning from the prison where Joaquin still resides—has veered violently off the road. Life is cruel.
— If this is a film concerned with history as a structure, a grinding process, then it is also a film concerned with transmission, with family. Joaquin and Eliza have their inarticulate piety. They are good parents. Fabian and his sister locate the source of their suffering on the parents who left them for the West in order to furnish them with a good life and a thriving farm. ‘Money won’t buy you happiness’ feels too pat and reductive for what Diaz is communicating here. I don’t know what he’s saying. That globalisation is localised abjection? Abandonment of family cascades into an abandonment of the self. We remember that the children of Joaquin and Eliza are, by the film’s end, also without parents (one dead, one imprisoned). What will their future hold? A dizzying low-angled shot from the bottom of a cliff gazes steadily at Eliza and her children. It seems she might hurl them from its lip. Closing the loop of injustice with fraternal violence. Embracing them, she walks back from the edge.
— Fate is cruel. Neat endings are eschewed. Fabian remains the author of his own fate, but that fate is self-obliterating (is this the logical endpoint of total freedom?). Swimming naked in the sea with his beloved dog—a dog he has previously abandoned, as he was abandoned by his parents—before killing that same animal in a wetly horrific (and again unseen) act. We see only his body smothering the dog’s body, the sound of a knife entering flesh. Diaz keeps his abjection always just out of sight, the ‘secret history’ of terror and violence being at once everywhere and nowhere. Like Norte, it is without coordinates, but it can still - finally - obliterate you.
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